When Leadership Burnout May Really be Leadership Burn-in
Dan Kador is CTO of the successful startup Keen.io
Medium recently picked up his post on acknowledging that he was burned out.
Full disclosure: he’s my son.
Unnecessary disclosure: I’m totally proud of him.
The post starts with Dan wrestling with this question fundamental to all leaders: Is there a difference between work that you have to delegate and work that you delegate because you don’t want to do it?
He accepts that it’s appropriate for a leader to delegate tasks that the leader is no good at. In Dan’s case, that includes stuff like managing a sales process, coming up with an inbound marketing strategy, running payroll, etc.
All well and good. But now he also wants to delegate work that he is actually very good at and for some years was the only one at the company that could do it. These tasks include heroic work such as fixing broken machines in production, diagnosing emergency issues, and building big new systems.
Does this means he’s burned out?
Maybe. But there’s another explanation. Burned out executives typically leave a burned out organization in their wake. That’s not what I see at Keen. Far from it.
In fact, he’s helped build a team of superstars to whom he can successfully offload an increasing number of tasks.
What’s a leader to do?
The fundamental job of effective leaders is to replace themselves with someone who can do the job better. That starts by building a team and then delegating each and every one of their responsibilities until they’ve delegated themselves into irrelevance.
This dynamic is what I call burn-in and it’s what I see Dan doing.
It’s not easy, especially for founders whose identity has been formed around being indispensable. And yet dispensable must be the new reality that the best leaders must create for themselves.
Burn-in is my term for the gradual process that transforms the leader from someone who was indispensable to the organization to someone who is, to the original organization, more and more dispensable until the leader becomes indispensable somewhere else.
Burnout vs. Burn-in
Burnout is a gradual process by which leaders haphazardly disengage from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress without making effective accommodations for the organization. Burnout is driven by cynicism and confusion.
The leader’s needs trump the organization’s.
Burn-in is a gradual process by which leaders intentionally disengage from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to the long-term needs of the organization. Burn-in is driven by dedication and even love for the organization.
The organization’s needs trump the leader’s.
Burn-in also has a felicitous tie-in as an engineering concept.
A burn-in is conducted to ensure that a product or system functions properly before it is delivered to the customer. It is often a test in which a system or component is made to run for an extended period of time under rigorous conditions to detect problems.
Is there a better way to conceptualize the role of a founder in a startup than a leader who is made to run for an extended period of time under rigorous conditions to detect problems?
Sometimes leaders wilt under such conditions and, if they don’t get help, burn out. It’s a loss for everyone when that happens.
I don’t see that happening to Dan. Not with the culture that he has inspired and the team that he has built around him. Not if I have anything to say about it.
Dan may well delegate himself into a new set of tasks and responsibilities. And if he does, he will have avoided burnout in favor of burn-in and a new set of opportunities for Keen and himself.
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